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Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category


Have you ever tried hewing orcs and hacking goblins? Every once in a while you happen across some fell beast whose armor is just too strong and whose orc-hide is too thick. No matter how much you hack and hew, your sword just won’t do the trick. Like in the Beowulf epic, some monsters are too big.

If your answer is no, then I confess: neither have I.

But as Christians we are always doing battle: “Not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Paul exhorts all Christians (women included) to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” and to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:10-11). But how are we supposed to “put on” this “full armor of God”? Indeed, if this is how we take our “stand against the devil’s schemes,” then we ought to know what Paul is talking about. And so he explains:

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests (Eph. 6:14-18).

The belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, gospel greaves, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit “which is the word of God.” And though all of the above are important (indeed indispensable), it is to the last item that I wish to draw our attention — the sword of the Spirit “which is the word of God.” And so let us follow Paul’s metaphor a little bit.

Nothing is worse then a dull blade — a sword that doesn’t work. You hack at helmets and nothing happens. You expend all your might and mane yet your enemies remain, standing and undaunted. And conversely, nothing is better then a sharp blade — a sword well-forged and proven in battle. In the Beowulf epic mentioned above, the hero is unable to subdue his enemy (Grendel’s mother) until he reaches for a special sword presented to him at the very last moment. Without it he would have failed. With it he was able to smite his monstrous foe. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings, contrasts those swords which are well-forged (by Elves and Dwarfs in ages past) with the poor contrivances of lesser men. Andúril (Aragorn’s sword) is featured prominently as the “Flame of the West.” And in the hands of the king it strikes fear into enemy hearts. This is because it had been re-forged from the shards of Narsil, that blade which had cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, sending the Dark Lord into hiding.

And yet these myths tell us something true about reality itself: What matters is not merely the man, and how valiantly he fights, nor how sincerely and earnest.  What matters is also the weapon with which he fights. And not all weapons are created equal. Some weapons are made of “better stuff.” Some swords by better smithies. And the difference between the two can determine either victory or defeat — life or death. And yet I believe this analogy holds when considering the sword of the Spirit as well.

What is the sword of the Spirit? Paul says it is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). Thus, it is not the word of men, or angels, or demons, but the word of God. In many ways, words are like swords. Not all words are “created” equal (as it were). Some are stronger, sharper, and more “cutting.” Some are made of “better stuff.” Others are constructed poorly. Some words are simply more powerful and can “do things” that other words cannot. As the wise man said, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). A man can be built up or ruined by the words of others. A father can either devastate his daughter with cruel words, or establish her with loving words that tell her she is cherished.

But God’s word is unlike and above all the words of men. It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). It kills and makes alive. Thus, it wasn’t without reason that our Lord quoted from Scripture when he did battle against Beelzebub. And by the word of God, the Son of God routed the enemy, sending him fleeing into defeat. God’s word is a powerful word, and thus a powerful sword. Indeed, there is none like it. So the psalmist writes, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise” (Ps. 56:3-4). And again, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2).

But after telling us to take up the “sword of the Spirit,” notice how Paul also instructs us to “pray in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18) And so there is this connection, between the “sword of the Spirit” and our praying “in the Spirit.” As Calvin notes:

Having instructed the Ephesians to put on their armor, he now enjoins them to fight by prayer. This is the true method. To call upon God is the chief exercise of faith and hope; and it is in this way that we obtain from God every blessing (Calvin’s Commentary on Ephesians).

With what do we fight our battles? The word of God. Where do we fight our battles? Upon our knees. The two are vitally connected. If we are to “stand firm” we must be men and women who not only read God’s word (studying it, and meditating upon it), but who also pray God’s word. For it is in prayer that the sword of the Spirit does great battle. And it is in prayer than our knowledge and memory of the word (even our access to an english bible) become so invaluable. Here is where we fight our fiercest battles. And here is where our enemy will oppose us with all his might.

But if this is the case, how ought we best pray with Scripture — that is, praying according to God’s word? Our Lord has certainly not left us without instruction. First of all it should be recognized that the entirety of Scripture can itself be prayed and incorporated in prayer. More specifically, Jesus himself gave his disciples a most excellent example in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6, Luke 11). And yet especially suited to the purpose of prayer God has given us the Psalter. And here is a gift most incomparable.

In the 150 psalms God gave us his very-own, ready-made, prayers. Their craftsmanship is both human and divine, capable of penetrating the depths of human weakness and despair, as well as ascending to the heights of worship and adoration. As John Calvin called them “an Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” a “treasury” of “resplendent riches,” the excellency of which is “no easy matter to express in words.”

[F]or there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.

Given the incomparable richness of the Psalms, we might be surprised to realize God actually wants us to use them! But such generosity (even gratuitous extravagance) is not unlike our God.

In fact God has given us these resplendent beauties of the finest quality so that we might sing them back to him; that we might pray them from our hearts; and that we might do battle with them. For these words are not just any words — they are the words of God, forged by the breath of God. And their reliability is next to none. Indeed, the Psalter has been taken upon the lips of our Lord and King Jesus Christ himself when walking this earth and doing battle against demons and dragon. Paul likewise, and all the great host of Christians gone before, have cherished these words to ward off and contend with their bitterest enemies — the world, the flesh, and the devil. As David writes, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). The Psalter is a blade forged from that ancient hypostatic Word; expired by God himself; holy and inerrant; infallible and unbreakable.  A sword of the Lord, divinely wrought, and double-edged, for prayer and praise, now given to mortal men! …. And do we not care?

Amongst all the portions of Scripture, the psalms especially offer themselves as inspired prayers to God, ready for use, suited to our every need. How is that we are so often apt to leave this sword upon the mantel and in its scabbard? As Calvin noted:

God has furnished us with various defensive weapons, provided we do not indolently refuse what is offered. But we are almost all chargeable with carelessness and hesitation in using the offered grace; just as if a soldier, about to meet the enemy, should take his helmet, and neglect his shield. To correct this security, or, we should rather say, this indolence, Paul borrows a comparison from the military art, and bids us put on the whole armor of God. We ought to be prepared on all sides, so as to want nothing. The Lord offers to us arms for repelling every kind of attack. It remains for us to apply them to use, and not leave them hanging on the wall. – Commentary on Eph. 6:11

How is it that we often prefer our own weak and measly words when doing battle? When fighting spiritual warfare upon our knees? When all hell has broken out against us and none of our words seem to be making a single dent? Why do we choose our own ideas, our own thoughts, our own strength? Do we think we are stronger than our enemies? Or that our foes don’t really want to destroy us? How often do we reach for the sword of the flesh when we could take up the sword of the Spirit? Do we suppose that they are equally made? Do we think our words will suffice?

O how powerful God’s word really is! When taken upon one’s lips by faith; with understanding in the heart. O how mighty they are in battle, and with what ease they are sent aloft to the heavens, or fall upon our foes. With what deadly swiftness they bid our assailants depart. And with what comfort do they fill our souls. When all else fails, and we are nearly subdued by our enemies, one word sends our enemies packing. For all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). As Martin Luther understood and wrote so well:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That Word “above all earthly powers,” who is himself Life indestructible, has condescended to canonize his very speech for us. And by his spirit he makes this word to live within us and thus give us life. O may we knew that word better, and understand it by his Spirit. May we allow it to dwell within us richly, with all wisdom and understanding (Col. 1:9). Then we will be able to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord” in our hearts (Eph. 5:19). And since prayer is the chief part of our gratitude which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of him” (Heidelberg Catechism 116), let us ask for these things.

And let us give thanks to God for his Word and Spirit, and for the Psalter. And let us take it upon our lips, speaking with faith hearts these psalms which cause our enemies to shrink back in dismay. Calvin wrote, “By faith we repel all the attacks of the devil, and by the word of God the enemy himself is slain.” Now we have been given a better sword. By faith and prayer, let us wield it wisely.

Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler and rise for my help!
Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers!
Say to my soul, “I am your salvation!” (Ps. 35:1-3)

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So I’ve been reading a lot of Calvin (and about Calvin) lately. And that’s for two reasons: 1) I really like reading Calvin. And 2) I get to write a paper on Calvin for my Medieval Reformation class.

And I recently got my hands on J. Todd Billings’ book Calvin, Participation, and the Gift. He seems to deal with all sorts of issues in this book. However, I found his comments on Calvin’s view of prayer particularly insightful and pastoral. The following are a few excerpts:

Prayer is the place where people ‘learn it by heart’, namely, the dynamic reality that they must look outside of themselves for happiness, wealth, and communion. This takes place ‘in Christ’, revealing the Father.

[Calvin quotation] “After we have been instructed by faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father willed all the fullness of his bounty to abide so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing spring, it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what we have learned to be in him.”  Inst. 3.20.1

In explaining how we draw upon this ‘overflowing spring’, Calvin speaks of the Spirit and the adoption enabled through the Spirit. ‘The Spirit of adoption who seals the witness of the gospel in our hearts, raises up our spirit to dare show forth to God their desires, to stir up unspeakable groaning, and confidently cry, “Abba! Father!”‘

Through calling upon the Father by the Spirit, believers receive ‘an extraordinary peace and repose to our conscience’. When one experiences God as father, one recognizes that God deals with us with generosity and kindness, ‘gently summoning us to unburden our cares into his bosom’. In experiences this adoption through the Spirit by praying in Christ, one needs to have ‘true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving’, for all good gifts come from the Father. Indeed, one of the purposes of prayer is that ‘we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers’.
— 110-1

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